"Strange thoughts brew in your heart when you spend too much time with old books." (Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why is it a lot harder to oppress a white man than a black woman?

PART 4: What is "privilege"?

Years ago I was working and chatting with a colleague who was...

- male
- in his 20s
- tall
- broad shouldered
- white
- middle class
- blonde
- good looking

about the movie Higher Learning by John Singleton. I love Singleton and though Higher Learning wasn't the best of his films, I was surprised when (let's call him) John said he hated the movie. John saw a lot of movies. I asked him why.

He said because there wasn't a single guy in the movie who was sympathetic, who he (John) could identify with.

I'm pretty sure I stopped shelving my books and gaped at him.

Now, if you haven't seen Higher Learning (trailer), you won't know that this is basically true. It's about a white small town guy who goes to college, he doesn't have good social skills and has trouble fitting in. The black kids don't accept him, the girls don't like him, and white Jewish roommate doesn't befriend him cause he finds him kinda weird. One night three white guys approach and befriend our hero, make him feel wanted and liked, and they turn out to be skinheads. This kid doesn't start off as explicitly racist--he's ignorant, but Singleton is careful to show that his values could have been influenced by anyone else on campus who'd chosen to befriend him. He eventually becomes a skinhead and kills a black student.

The closest you get to a nice white guy is the Jewish roommate, and he doesn't feature prominently. The other protagonists are a black gay and a white girl, who is date-raped by the seemingly Nice White Boy.

So yes. It would be hard to find a sympathetic WASP male in this movie.

I gaped at John and I said something like: "But 99.9% of ALL MOVIES have a character you can sympathize with. You can't enjoy ONE MOVIE that doesn't? Now you know what it's like to be everyone else!"

This is what the word "privilege" means, in political terms. As the majority power group in Canadian society, he has been so privileged that he was shocked to come face to face with a film that he didn't fit in with.

As a white woman, I have a lot of privilege myself. It didn't occur to me to question "flesh colored" bandages/dresses/crayons until I read it somewhere. The point about privilege is that it's a huge collection of various items that are skewed in your direction, and they take time and effort to uncover. Peggy McIntosh called it an invisible knapsack that's handed to you at birth.

In the documentary The Celluloid Closet, about the portrayal of gays and bisexuals in Hollywood, many of the people interviewed talk about searching desperately as children for some positive on-screen portrayal that could be construed as being a gay one. I didn't have to do that--almost every romance in a movie is between a man and a woman.

Those are just cultural examples. I strongly recommend reading McIntosh's famous essay "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" to think of more of them. For example:

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.

And the male list from Alas! a Blog:
20. I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented.
22. If I’m careless with my driving it won’t be attributed to my sex. 

25. I do not have to worry about the message my wardrobe sends about my sexual availability. (More).

36. Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is pictured as male.

When a man accuses a woman of "reverse sexism" or a white person accuses a black person of "reverse racism" I think about the history of power relations, and I think about privilege. And I think: Really? ...I mean: Really?

[Pics by barunpatro, mzacha, juliaf.]
* This is explicitly not an academic discussion, and I recognize I've simplified topics that entire PhDs have been built on. For the record I'm white, Anglo-Saxon-Norman, Christian, heterosexual, female, middle class, a little overweight, and pretty able-bodied. :-)

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